Degrassi: The Next Generation Offers Honest Portrayal of Gay Teens

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by Matthew Weiss, August 10, 2005


Not everything is tamer in Canada. CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian based teen drama set at Degrassi High School, is a young, gritty soap opera shown in America only on The N (Nickelodeon’s teen sister channel).


In the 1980’s, there were earlier versions of Degrassi which aired on PBS, but when Next Generation debuted in 2001, it took the authentic portrayal of teen angst to a whole new level. Where our American teen shows focus on note-passing and dates to the prom, typical plots on Degrassi include date rape, affairs with teachers, abusive boyfriends, mental psychosis, drug overdoses, teen pregnancy, oral sex, and the like.


And where would scandalous shows be without homosexuality? Degrassi not only focuses on gay teens, but it showcases gay sex, and relationships. As its tag line promotes, “It goes there."


Degrassi’s two main gay characters are Dylan Michalchuk (John Bregar) and Marco Del Rossi (Adam Ruggario), who are dating one another. They are two different characterizations of being a gay youth: Dylan is openly gay and rather masculine. He’s the star hockey player, and nobody screws with him. Marco isn’t out to everyone (his father doesn’t know, nor do some of his friends), and yet he’s more feminine then Dylan is. He’s super fashionable, complete with soul-patch and all, as well as an amazing dancer. They’ve been dating for awhile now, and while Dylan is in college, they’re attempting to make their long distance relationship work.


Fans, straight and gay alike, have enjoyed watching Dylan and Marco’s relationship develop. They also appreciate the “love is blind” approach the show takes, while accurately portraying the trials and tribulations of coming out and being a gay teenager. It helps that Ruggario and Bregar aren’t 25-year-old actors playing teens, they're both actually acting their real age. And they're both approaching the gay storyline with care and kindness.


To their generation, having a gay love story on TV is much more accepted than to someone born in the 50’s, say. As Bregar (who before booking Degrassi, almost joined the cast of Queer as Folk) told the Advocate in 2004, “People grow up now with the idea of coming out and stuff like that. It’s not such a surprise when they do. Our generation is growing up seeing it happen. People are opinionated, but seriously, bigger things happen.”


Joining other young actors playing gay teens on TV, like Shawn Pyfrom (Desperate Housewives), and Randy Harrison (Queer as Folk), the Degrassi guys are voicing a new generation of gay youth on television. And thankfully none of them are as flamboyant as Jim J. Bullock or Billy Crystal on Soap.


CTV is also showcasing gay teen romance and pride. Said head writer Aaron Martin to The Advocate, “We wanted to make sure that he (Marco) came across the way 99% of gay teenagers come across. Not to stereotype anybody, but we didn’t want him to be the football player with confused sexuality.” By doing things like that, they are helping thousands of confused and shameful teenagers feel accepted, in Canada and America alike.


The actors have experienced some homophobia themselves. Ruggerio told the Advocate about kids who would scream “fag” at him at the mall, some whom he even went to elementary school with. However, he also mentions the hundreds of fan letters he’s gotten from kids thanking him for helping them deal with their sexuality. Ruggerio won’t comment on if he’s gay or not himself, but Bregar is quick to tell the Advocate, “I’m a straight actor playing gay.” He adds, on kissing Ruggerio, “It’s a set of lips.”


Teenagers aren’t the only gay characters on Degrassi. In season one, Ashley’s father came out of the closet. Having a teen deal with that sort of an event is rarely shown on American TV, with Luke's father being outed on the first season of The O.C. one of the few examples in recent history.


It's storylines like this that have helped Degrassi become a megahit. Created by Linda Schuyler, the series has earned GLAAD Media Award nominations, and won the Television Critics Associations Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming award in Los Angeles last week. The New York Times calls it the best teen show in the world, and the recent release of unedited DVD’s of Season Two are selling like hotcakes.


Although The N censors some of the show (like when a character gets an erection on camera), it is still the channel's most popular show, averaging 330,000 viewers. It attracts some of Canada's top talent as guest stars; Alanis Morissette, Kevin Smith, and Jason Mewes are set to guest star on the August 26th finale (Alanis will play a school principal).


Now that Canada has permitted gay marriage, perhaps Degrassi will be one of the first teen shows to routinely include married gay men.


By dealing with this subject so honestly to a younger audience, maybe everyone will become just a little more accepting. And maybe, just maybe, that will spread south of the border.

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